The Summit of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) Summit in Islamabad was not just attended by the nine members. Though much attention was focused on the failure of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to attend, perhaps of greater significance was the presence of the Chinese Executive Vice-Foreign Minister, Zhang Yesui.
ECO started out as the Regional Cooperation for Development, which in turn was the economic wing for CENTO, the military alliance of the USA, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, which was part of the ring that the USA threw around the USSR. Just as much as Turkey was the southern-most and eastern-most member of NATO, Pakistan was the southern-most and eastern-most member of CENTO, and also the northern-most and western-most member of SEATO. Just as NATO members also constituted (to an extent) the EEC, CENTO members formed the RCD and SEATO members ASEAN.
The conversion of military alliances to economic groupings left the USA to practice the Monroe Doctrine through NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), though the latter fell flat as the costs of globalisation, the process of lowering national barriers to promote efficient use of labour and capital, included costing the USA jobs. There was also a number of other economic groupings formed, such as the SAARC, ECOWAS and CARICOM, none of which were preceded by American military alliances. While CARICOM and SAARC members were all once British colonies, with CARICOM once members of the abortive West Indies federation, ECOWAS comprised ex-colonies of the UK, France, Spain and Germany. It was a natural step for the USA to promote SAARC once it had entered the region through its new friendship with India and its invasion of Afghanistan. Thus, Afghanistan joined not only SAARC, but also ECO.
The expansion of ECO also allowed the Central Asian Republics, which came into being after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, a place in the sun. The CARs became important to the USA when Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, along with Russia itself were activated as the Northern Distribution Network when the Salala incident made Pakistan suspend US supplies to Afghanistan. The NDN proved very expensive, but it ensured that the USA had a route to Afghanistan alternative to the one from Pakistan.
However, the CARs are also members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, founded by Beijing primarily for regional cooperation against terrorism and militancy. At the last summit, last year, when Pakistan was given admission, China had made the share of the members in the New Silk Road a sweetener. While that inducement might not loom as large for members as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor does for Pakistan, it is still an important inducement. Importantly, Russia is being brought on board on the entire venture. This is raising US suspicions that China and Russia are ganging up. That is a suspicion that precedes World War II, and thus the Cold War, and has been given greater currency by its famed Pivot East. As it is growing more antagonistic to China, a trend which is likely to be accelerated under President Trump, Pakistan may well find that it comes under increasing pressure as it tries to maintain what it sees as a special relationship with both countries.
The SCO is attractive to the members of ECO, for not only are Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan members, but Iran and Afghanistan are observers, Azerbaijan and Turkey dialogue partners and Turkmenistan a special invitee.
Pakistan has not just got ECO or the SCO for interacting with its members. All are UN members, as well as members of the OIC. In effect, this grouping is the non-Arab core of the Islamic world. Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo are also non-Arab, but the ECO non-Arab core is influenced by Iran and Turkey.
While the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister did not attend the Summit, his presence was an indication that there was a new sense of purpose to a grouping that had important historical links, but which did not have strong economic linkages. It is significant that the CARs find a place in New Silk Road project in ECO because that would obviate any possible Russian discomfort. While the CARs are still integrated into the old Soviet economic system, with further reinforcement from being part of the NDN along with Russia, the latter would not like to see Chinese influence wane in them, and American increase while its own decreases, because of the New Silk Road.
China is also engaged in a search for international legitimacy, particularly with regard to Taiwan. Acceptance of China’s claim to be the ‘true China’ has been weakened by President Trump’s recent remarks, thereby jeopardising virtually all of the USA’s diplomacy since Nixon went to China in 1972. This seems a response to China’s growing profile, helped by a phenomenal growth rate, which makes it one of the countries likely to become a great power, likely to challenge the USA’s present dominance. Trump’s apparent reflexive anti-Chinese rhetoric should be related to his slogan ‘Make America Great Again.’ China is also one of the BRICS countries, which are predicted to be emerging powers. While India is one of the BRICS states, it has aligned itself to the USA, and sees China as a rival on the Asian continent. It should be noticed that Russia is the only other BRICS country at the SCO, and there was no other at the ECO Summit.
ECO is to be seen within the context of the SCO. It should also be noted that while both precede the War on Terror, both have been overtaken by it, and though essentially economic organisations, have to be seen also as tools to fight it. China is also feeling the heat of militancy, mainly because of its occupation of Chinese Turkestan. While Turkey has always backed Uighur rebels out of pan-Turk sentiment, the Uighurs are culturally and linguistically more akin to the residents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Incidentally, Uzbeks are an important minority in Afghanistan. Therefore, because of its occupation of Xinjiang, China has an interest in the stability of Afghanistan.
There are other shoals ahead. Russia itself may intervene in Afghanistan again, because the Afghan National Army is unable to control the Taliban or Daesh elements there, and because it needs to secure its own backyard. It is not only the same reason it has given in Syria, but it should be noted that this will impact directly on ECO, as virtually all its governments face replacement by Islamists should they come to power. The pro-Russian element, the vast majority of ECO, is also pro-Indian, as the Central Asian members are following the old Soviet policy which had India as an ally. There is thus a convergence of interests of all member governments.
There are also problems which only the future will resolve. ECO, from a Cold-War economic adjunct to SCENTO, has evolved into a sort of Central Asian branch servicing China’s New Silk Road. This makes it overlap the SCO, which is evolving into a similar organisation. ECO has the big difference that China is not a member. This is a disadvantage, but it might be seen as an advantage if it were to become a sort of trade UNION. In that case, not only will the Islamabad Summit be remembered as a precursor, but the Chinese representative may well address future Summits.